Yoga for the Special Child™

SoniaSumarSivakami was a popular Yoga teacher in Brazil when, in the early 1990s, she met Swami Satchidananda (Sri Gurudev) on his South American tour. Sivakami, who lived in Brazil, had been searching for a personal Guru for years, and it was Guru Bhakti at first sight! She taught herself English so she could speak to Gurudev. Eventually, with Sri Gurudev’s encouragement, she moved to Yogaville and developed an English version of her Yoga program for children with special needs. Her story is inspirational and her service unique.

Integral Yoga Magazine: Would you please tell us your story and what led you to working with children with special needs?

Sivakami Sumar:  Roberta, my second daughter, was born with Down Syndrome. It was 32 years ago. It was a difficult time because there wasn’t yet early intervention, even in the United States. I already was practicing Yoga and I felt that was the only thing that I could offer her at that time. I chose to teach her Yoga because I wanted to make her stronger, to make her inner world stronger so that she could face the adversities of the world without getting frustrated. And, also, so that she could develop inner power so that she would have strength to go beyond her body’s limits. I wanted her to know she wasn’t just that body.

I knew that everyone comes with a purpose in life. I truly believed my daughter had a very beautiful mission. I knew that Yoga would reinforce it. So, she became a great Yogini. I think she had already been one. Otherwise she would not have come into a Yogi’s family. That is why I started to teach Yoga for children with special needs. I started Yoga with her when she was a baby. Then, I started teaching in the school where she was studying.  

IYM: How did that come about?  

SS: When Roberta was three I put her in a special school. The school tested her fully and they told me, “We have never seen a three-year-old with Down Syndrome be so independent.” Roberta was able to put shoes on, although she couldn’t tie them. She could put her own clothes on. She could wash and dry her hands. She could even help the other children. She was very independent and they were impressed with her. One day, the principal came to me and asked me what I had done with her over the previous three years that she was so amazing now. So, I told them, “Just Yoga. She never had any other therapy but Yoga.” So, the school invited me to work there.

IYM: Did all the children have Down Syndrome?

SS: No, they had different disabilities. Roberta opened that door for me. The purpose of her life was to inspire me to work with children with special needs. I remember when she was about eight; she came into the room where I was practicing Yoga with my older daughter, Renata [who lives in Brazil and teaches Yoga and the program her mother developed]. Roberta said, “Mama, I am your guru.” I said, “No, sweetheart. I am your guru because I am the one who is teaching Yoga since you were born.” Then, she started to laugh and she said, “No, Mama! I am your guru!” Then, I thought that she didn’t understand me, so I just said, “Okay, sweetheart, okay. You are my guru.” Only later did I understand. She opened the door for all this!

IYM: What led to your sharing your work more widely?

SS: One of my students said, “You should write a book. What if you passed away? Nobody would know what you have done with your daughter. You should do it!” So, I started to expand my notes into a book. I was giving talks in Yoga congresses and traveling a lot in Brazil. I started to go to Uruguay and Argentina. After that, someone invited me to go to Portugal. So it began to spread.

IYM: How did you decide to make an English translation and to make your program available in America?

SS: A student of mine translated the book into English because I wanted to show it to Gurudev. He said, “That’s very beautiful work that you do. I have spoken with the people in Yogaville about your work.” Later, I went to Yogaville and I met Jeff Volk. He had read the summary and was really inspired by my work. He worked for five years refining and preparing the book for the English publication and publicizing the book and program.

I taught my program in Yogaville. Gurudev came to visit us and gave us his blessings. He blessed even the dolls that I was working with—I still have those dolls today! He was always telling people during satsang, “She is getting famous!” He was always encouraging me! He was, little by little, passing so much energy to my programs. I think that is why the program has become so popular.

IYM: Who can take your program?

SS: My program is for physical therapists, occupational therapists, parents, Yoga teachers, and anybody who is interested in working with children with special needs—or who is already working with children with special needs and who wants to complement what they are now doing. Our method is very gentle. It is based on trust and confidence and the connection with the child.  

IYM: What do you teach? Are the asanas adapted to children with special needs?

SS: It depends on the individual child. In many cases, the child will need preparation before doing Yoga. That is why I have divided the work into four stages. One is the preparatory stage, which will prepare the child’s body for doing the Yoga class later. Then, you have the next stage, when the child starts to work with you and when you can feel the child start to cooperate more. Then, you have the interactive stage. There, the child starts to do the asanas. Then comes the imitative stage. After this, the child is ready to go into a regular group class.

IYM: What happens after the program?

SS: Depending where they live, the parents bring the child to me to re-evaluate every one to three months. If they live in a different country they may only come every six months. Additionally, parents can take refresher programs every year so that they can keep updated on Yoga for the Special Child techniques.

IYM: What if someone wants to become a certified instructor for Yoga for the Special Child?  

SS: To teach Yoga for children with special needs is not like teaching a regular Yoga class. You need to really know the right approach so that you don’t get frustrated or so that you don’t frustrate the child. There is always a way to work with a child, no matter what kind of impairment that child has. But, you need to have the knowledge to do this.  

We require teachers to take the basic program and the advanced program. Then, we require that they repeat five more basic programs so that they can be trained well. Then they come to get personal training from me. We have a license agreement so that they can teach Yoga for the Special Child.  

IYM: Tell us about your program in Yogaville.  

SS: Generally, it is wonderful to teach a program where the group is staying together in one place because you can do deeper work with each person in the group. When they are doing Yoga for the Special Child in an environment like Yogaville, they can also experience the yogic life in the Ashram—getting up early in the morning to do sadhana. They can intensify the work they are doing in the program even more.

IYM: What are your future plans for Yoga for the Special Child, now that more and more people are learning about it?

SS: I never make future plans. I just live in the present, moment to moment. That is the teaching of my Guruji, to live in the present moment. I dedicate all my love and creativity to just enjoying the present moment. I am just serving. I am just doing what has to be done. The future is in God’s hands. That’s my life.

About Sonia Sivakami Sumar

Sonia offers Yoga for the Special Child™ Teacher Training around the world. She offers it in Yogaville each Fall. For more information on Sonia’s work, please visit her website or call: 1-888-900-YOGA.

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2004

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